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Despite Setbacks, Arizona Sheriff Won’t Yield the Spotlight


MESA, Ariz. — It is not uncommon for law enforcement agencies to have helicopters and planes to patrol from above, but Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, has created what he calls his own air force: a collection of 30 private planes that his “air posse” uses to track illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

In what Mr. Arpaio is calling Operation Desert Sky, private pilots have begun flying over central Arizona to act as spotters for Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department deputies. The overhead surveillance has not yet led to any arrests, two weeks after it began, but Mr. Arpaio said it would have a deterrent effect.

In short, Sheriff Joe — as he is widely known — is still at it.

Despite court setbacks to Arizona’s aggressive illegalimmigration law, two continuing federal investigations into his law enforcement practices and an audit of his budget released this week that found that millions of dollars had been misspent, the sheriff — as vividly highlighted by the creation of the Arpaio air force — is not backing down in his pursuit of illegal immigrants, or the limelight.

“This is just another controversial program that I don’t think is controversial,” Mr. Arpaio said in his characteristic gruff way.

On Wednesday, budget officials in Maricopa County — a sprawling place as large as some states that includes Phoenix, the country’s sixth-largest city — found that Mr. Arpaio’s department had used nearly $100 million in funds meant to run the jails for other activities, including paying the salaries of deputies assigned to his contentious efforts to uncover human smuggling and public corruption.

Mr. Arpaio, who blames accounting errors for the audit finding and accuses critics of trying to exploit it, skipped the budget hearing and instead showed up outside Monte Carlo Dry Cleaners here, where his deputies led away six women who were charged with using false identification to get jobs, a state crime.

As always, the news media were called to capture the tough-talking sheriff, who declared that this represented the 44th business he had raided in search of illegal immigrants in recent years. If he was feeling the heat from the growing criticism of his department, Mr. Arpaio, dressed in a uniform jacket with four gold stars on each shoulder, was not showing it.

Before the dry cleaners, Mr. Arpaio’s deputies had raided a string of Pei Wei Asian Diners, detaining scores of workers and prompting the chain to take out a full-page help-wanted ad to keep its kitchens going. Across the region are fast food shops, car washes, furniture stores and other establishments that have had sheriff’s deputies unexpectedly rush in demanding papers.

“We’re creating vacancies so these businesses can hire people legally,” Mr. Arpaio said. “I’ve just done something for the economy. I don’t get enough credit for that, from the Justice Department and the rest of the critics. They just think it’s the bad sheriff going in and grabbing dishwashers.”

Maricopa has a love-hate relationship with Mr. Arpaio, 78, an 18-year veteran who has regular protesters outside his downtown offices but still receives kudos from fans on the street and invitations from politicians eager for his endorsement.

Outside the dry cleaners, a man who was not able to drop off some shirts on Wednesday morning, because the store was not accepting new laundry, lauded Mr. Arpaio’s raids and declared of the detained workers: “If they were in the country illegally, they need to get out of here.”

But a woman who was picking up her cleaning was fuming as she waited for the commotion to end. “We’re tired of Sheriff Joe,” said the woman, who like several others at the scene declined to identify themselves. “These workers were supporting their families. They weren’t violent. This is ridiculous.”

The criticism was just as fierce last month when Mr. Arpaio allowed the actor Steven Seagal to ride in an armored vehicle to execute a search warrant in a major raid on a suspected cockfighting operation.

“I’ve never seen a bigger spectacle,” said Robert J. Campos, the lawyer for the accused man, Jesus Llovera. “You had Steven Seagal on a tank and a SWAT team swarming a home, but the reality is they arrested an unarmed man.”

Mr. Arpaio said Mr. Seagal was one of his many volunteer posse members who help out deputies. But Mr. Campos said the raid was filmed as part of Mr. Seagal’s reality television show, “Lawman,” on the A&E Network.

To get tips on which business to raid next, Mr. Arpaio uses a confidential hot line, the number of which is emblazoned on the side of the wagon used to transport suspects to Mr. Arpaio’s tent-city jail.

“My activist friends don’t like it,” Mr. Arpaio said of the use of tipsters. “Some politicians don’t like it. But I decide what goes on.”

Disgruntled current and former workers make up the most effective informants, deputies say, since they offer the most precise information on suspected illegal immigrants working at a business. Many tips, however, are from customers upset to find so many Latinos working in a particular place.

“We get calls all the time that say, ‘There’s Hispanics in a McDonald’s and they don’t speak English,’ ” said Lt. Joe Sousa, commander of the department’s human smuggling division. “That’s racial profiling, and I ignore that. We need specifics.”

The hot line also receives plenty of calls commenting on Mr. Arpaio. “A lot of calls are ‘Way to go, Joe!’ or ‘We hate you, Joe.’ ” Lieutenant Sousa acknowledged.

Mr. Arpaio has growing competition for the title of the most outspoken Arizona sheriff when it comes to illegal immigration.

Larry Dever, the sheriff of Cochise County, on the Mexican border, recently drew the ire of Michael J. Fisher, chief of the federal Border Patrol, when he claimed that the patrol’s agents were intentionally not arresting some illegal immigrants to keep apprehension numbers down. “Completely, 100 percent false,” Mr. Fisher responded in a letter.

And Sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County has declared his county to be ground zero when it comes to smuggling. In early February, he predicted that his deputies would engage in a major shootout with drug cartel members in a month or two. His remarks prompted three border mayors to write a letter telling him to stop stretching the truth and “creating panic.”

Mr. Arpaio asked Mr. Babeu to investigate allegations that three of Mr. Arpaio’s aides, including his chief deputy, David Hendershott, had engaged in misconduct on the job. Mr. Babeu delivered the results to Mr. Arpaio this week, although they have not yet been made public.

In an interview in his office, Mr. Arpaio was dismissive of the growing chorus of criticism of his stewardship. He said he might introduce a new set of pink underwear for his inmates, a sample of which he pulled out of a filing cabinet with a flourish.

“The president may have a no-fly zone over Libya, but there will never be a no-fly zone over my area,” he said, pausing for a moment and then adding, “That’s a good line, isn’t it?

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